Victims of Communism Remembered

The consecration of two memorials, one in the US the other in Russia, caught my attention as I was perusing the Russian news. The first is the so-called Victims of Communism Memorial which was dedicated in Washington DC today. The Memorial is the work of the Victim’s of Communism Memorial Foundation which seeks “to commemorate the more than 100 million victims of communism; to honor those who successfully resisted communist tyranny; to educate current and future generations about communism’s crimes against humanity; and to pay tribute to those who helped win the Cold War.” As a whole the Foundation seeks to make combat the “moral blind spot” and “moral failure” of “free societies” to not equate Communism with Nazism.

The Foundation’s origins date to HR 3000 which was sponsored by US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Senator Claiborne Pell, and Senator Jesse Helms and passed unanimously 17 December 1993 and then renewed in October 1998. The bill charged the National Captive Nations Committee “to construct, maintain, and operate in the District of Columbia an appropriate international memorial to honor victims of communism, tragically numbering more than 100 million, struck down in an unprecedented imperial communist holocaust through conquests, revolutions, civil wars, purges, wars by proxy, and other violent means.” Former President H. W. Bush serves as it honorary chairman and its National Advisory Board features such Russian studies necrophiliologists Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes. The Russian representation of its International Advisory Board includes former Soviet dissidents Elena Bonner and Vladimir Bukovsky.

Tuesday’s groundbreaking featured a keynote address by D.C. Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and remarks by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. President George W. Bush also spoke to the audience (see below).

I find having such a memorial rather strange. The millions of victims of communist regimes can’t be denied and their memory should live for a variety of reasons. But many of those reasons, I think, pertain to the nations where these tragedies occurred not in the United States. Having such a memorial seems to only twist the horrors of Communism into yet another example of self reflexive ideological grandstanding by the United States. After all, one must ask how many actual “survivors” of communism will actually get to visit the memorial? In fact, the Foundation’s own statements point to it as simple American triumphalism. Here are some examples from the Foundation’s “History of Communism”:

“The West’s triumph over the “evil empire” was no accident of history. It was the result of a calculated strategy by a grand alliance of political, military, religious, business and labor leaders. These leaders deserve credit for the victory over Communism many thought impossible.”

“And yet the United States, communism’s greatest challenger and a symbol of freedom to the world, has no memorial to commemorate these victims,” it said.

“This memorial will assure that they are, instead, remembered forever and that the history of communist tyranny will be taught to future generations.”

Oh, the hyperbole! In regard to the last one, remembered by who? Americans? It seems that such a memory should be for the nations that experienced, allowed, and participated these tragedies. Memorials like this should be in former Communist countries so there can be some social, political, and cultural reconciliation to these tragedies, not for the victors to beat their chest and claim the providence of History. The memory presented by the Victim’s of Communism Memorial Foundation is more like that memory’s hijacking rather than its preservation.

This brings me to the next memorial to the victims of Communism: the memorial dedicated to some 20,000 victims of Stalinist repression located in Butovo outside of Moscow. The memorial features a timeline of the repression and photographs and case files of victims (which ironically were given to the memorial by sympathetic KGB veterans) executed as part of Stalin’s “mass operations” carried out between August 1937 and November 1938. The “mass operation” or “kulak operation,” as Party documents called it, was the bloodiest moment of the Great Terror. According to historian Arch Getty, “By the time it ended in November 1938, 767,397 persons had been sentenced by summary troikas; 386,798 of them to death and the remainder to terms in GULAG camps. The process saw systematic, physical tortures (approved personally by Stalin) of a savage nature and scale, fabricated conspiracies, false charges, and mass executions. As such, the kulak operation of 1937-38 must be counted among the major massacres of a bloody twentieth century.” (J. Arch Getty, “‘Excesses are not permitted’: Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s,” Russian Review, 61, 2002, 113-114.)

What is more horrifying beyond Stalin’s personal hand in this operation is how, Getty argues, local leaders were more zealous and eager in implementing the operations than even Stalin and Ezhov desired. The result was an “operation far from centralized and quickly degenerated into the kind of chaos, confusion, and contradiction endemic to Stalinist campaign mode, but there is little reason to think that Stalin sought or expected the mess he created.” (116). The mass bloodletting was in part the result of the Soviet regimes own central institutional weakness.

The memorial at Butovo seeks to rescue some of the victims’ humanity from the violent chaos through memory. But that doesn’t mean that the effort is without controversy. Memory is never devoid of politics no matter how sincere the effort. As the New York Times explains:

The killing ground is a symbol of a much larger, bloodier conflict in Russian society, that between the Bolsheviks and the Russian Orthodox Church. One thousand of those killed here are known to have died for their Orthodox faith. More than 320 have been canonized as “new martyrs” of the church — bishops, monks, nuns and lay people who were victims of Soviet rule.

The new church was consecrated on May 19 as part of the celebration of the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Church Abroad, an ?migr? group that broke away in the 1920s. The walls of the church are filled with icons of the new martyrs, including one depicting their executioners shooting them. Glass cases in the lower church are filled with their personal items, like an executed priest’s prayer book and his violin.

Some visitors see the focus on Orthodoxy as insulting to the memory victims at Butovo, especially since many were not Orthodox nor Russian but resembled a snap shot how a variety of groups in Soviet society could be labeled “enemies of the people.”

Despite its focus on Orthodoxy, the Butovo memorial is exactly where a monument to the victims of Stalinism should be: where the trauma actually occurred and where those who’s families were directly or indirectly effected by the violence can construct a memory, and hopefully some sense and reconciliation of their own.

Update: According to the LA Times, the reason why the groundbreaking of the Victims of Communism Memorial was today was because today is the 20th anniversary of President Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech.

Another correction, President Bush did attend the event. As for what he said, the LA Times reports:

Bush paid tribute to Ukrainians who starved during Stalin’s purges, and to Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians put on box cars for deportation to concentration camps, and to East Germans shot attempting the scale the Berlin Wall.

“Regimes did more than take their victims’ lives,” Bush said. “They sought to erase their memory.”

Bush also used the occasion to compare communist tyrants to today’s terrorists. “Like communists,” he said, “followers of radical Islamic terrorism are doomed to fail.”